For those that have missed it, today sees the end of UK Coffee Week 2016. During the course of this week there’s been ‘a nationwide fundraising initiative to give back to the communities which grow our coffee’. The money that has been raised during the week is supporting Project Waterfall which is an initiative established to bring clean water and sanitation to coffee growing communities around the world and one that is well worthy of support. With people around me talking about UK Coffee Week my mind wandered off on a tangent and the outcome of that wandering is this blog post on the athletic performance enhancing effects of the bitter black liquid.
It’s estimated that 64% of the US population drink coffee everyday and that in the UK 70 million cups are enjoyed each day but, in addition the widespread public enjoyment, coffee is also recognised for it’s application in sporting events thanks to the presence of caffeine. Caffeine holds a funny place in the world of sport as it is a recognised stimulant, with well documented performance enhancing qualities, yet can legally be taken in competitive sporting events. I’ve presented perspectives surrounding the use of legal and illegal performance enhancing drugs in a previous post (drugs in sport – to ban or not to ban) so this post is all about the why, how and when you would use caffeine to enhance your performance.
As mentioned above, caffeine is a stimulant. It has been shown to improve:
- concentration during prolonged exhaustive exercise
- improve cycling performance in elite level endurance (aerobic) exercise
- improve performance in high-intensity (anaerobic) exercise
- reduce reports of muscle pain
- reduce perceived levels of exertion
The relevance this has to competitive sport isn’t lost on many, with the documented improvements in sporting performance averaging from 3.2% up to a 6% increase across research studies. The beneficial performance effects have been shown at doses of 3-6 mg/kg body weight with no improvement shown at levels beyond this. These effects have been shown to be optimised by caffeine abstinence for 5-7 days prior to competition.
There used to be a concern (and I still hear people mention it) that caffeine has a diuretic action and hence using it would dehydrate you and with this would come the detrimental performance effects associated with dehydration. These days it is recognised that the research that gave rise to this myth wasn’t well conducted and has since been superseded by numerous, more robust studies.
While the espresso shot above makes a nice header for this article, the levels of caffeine in coffee can vary. Despite this many athletes still drink coffee to get their performance enhancing caffeine intake. Others, however, are increasingly turning to caffeinated drinks, caffeinated gels or caffeine tablets in order to be more certain of the dose. A word of warning if you are partaking in anything other than black coffee, it is worth considering the high calories that accompany the caffeine in some of these products.
The research that has been conducted suggests that the optimum performance effect occurs around 1 hour after caffeine consumption but there are two large considerations:
- Different people respond differently to the same level of caffeine intake and while some will gain a caffeine-boost, others can end up feeling sick and jittery.
- Some of you will have noticed that caffeine can assist bowel motions to occur and for those of you who haven’t………caffeine can assist bowel motions to occur.
Neither sick and jittery feelings or ill timed bowel motions would be useful during competition so if you’re wanting to experiment with caffeine, make sure you experiment during your training sessions first.
As mentioned above, abstaining from caffeine for 5-7 days prior to competition optimises the performance effects.
Caffeine use is a tried and trusted method of improving performance that has been adopted by many athletes over many years though, in some cases, it can be detrimental to performance. Ultimately, the relevance of caffeine to your own performance will depend on your personal preference. The important point to recognise however is that caffeine purely enhances performance ie it enhances what is already there. In no way does caffeine provide a short cut to success and will only be of use if it is taken as part of a sports performance diet on the background of a focused physical and mental, practice-based training program.